Afghanistan, and Beyond

The refusal to see the terror war plain, which blinded the Bush Administration for seven years, continues to bamboozle our strategists.  It looms over the  “new” strategy for defeating al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Afpak).  Listening to the president’s vision for the war–three dead letters his secretary of state proudly and mistakenly consigned to the garbage pail of history a few days ago–reminds me of the story of Mark Twain’s wife and his penchant for blaspheming.  One evening she tried to shock him by unleashing a torrent of four-letter words.  He chuckled, and said, “you’ve got the lyrics, dear, but the music’s all wrong.”

So it is with Obama.  The words are there, from “we will defeat you” to the counterinsurgency terms of art.  He reminds us that Iraqi terrorists abandoned al Qaeda and insists that we have to give Afghan terrorists the same chance.  He reminds us that Iraqi forces have now taken over most of the fighting in their country, and says that we must do the same in Afghanistan.  He calls for engineers, doctors, teachers and construction experts to help create social and political institutions capable of winning the allegiance of most Afghans.  He says that Pakistan and Afghanistan are parts of a broader problem, and he is right.

But the music is all wrong.  Read the speech,  and you’ll see that it doesn’t really parse.  All the pieces are there but they don’t fit together.  Everything is jumbled.  There is no sense of sequence, no recognition that the part he likes–from weaning the terrorists from al Qaeda and/or the Taliban, to building roads and schools and hospitals–can only work once the part he doesn’t like–killing enough bad guys and providing credible security–has succeeded.  He doesn’t seem to understand the essential part of the war, which is that the people on the ground will only commit to one side or another if they conclude that one side is going to win.  Otherwise they will avoid commitment, and seek to curry favor from everyone.

The Anbar Awakening only got going when the locals reached two conclusions: the Marines could not be beaten, and the Marines were not going to leave.  That took a while; the people had to see it and they had to have sufficient security to justify the enormous risk they took when they joined the battle against the terrorists.  The president  seems to think we can and should do everything at once:

In Iraq, we had success in reaching out to former adversaries to isolate and target al Qaeda in Iraq. We must pursue a similar process in Afghanistan, while understanding that it is a very different country.

There is an uncompromising core of the Taliban. They must be met with force, and they must be defeated. But there are also those who've taken up arms because of coercion, or simply for a price. These Afghans must have the option to choose a different course. And that's why we will work with local leaders, the Afghan government, and international partners to have a reconciliation process in every province.

I’d be delighted to sign on to this if he just added a clause at the end: “as our enemies are defeated there.”  First you defeat them (creating a decent army and police forces in the process), then you reconcile, and then you build the roads, schools and hospitals.  If you send in the school teachers before you’ve established adequate security, you’ll just provide the terrorists with fodder and hostages.

All too often, the president shows that he thinks negotiations are simply the result of good intentions, and that peace can be accomplished by the right sort of people.  But peace invariably is the result of war, and peace conferences don’t change the world by themselves; they provide a snapshot of a world that has already been changed by war.  A few days before his Afpak speech, the president celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Israel/Egypt peace agreement.  "As we commemorate this historic event, we recall that peace is always possible even in the face of seemingly intractable conflicts," he said.  And then, referring to his own intentions, he continued:

The success...demonstrated that progress results from sustained     efforts at communication and cooperation...we honor the courage and foresight of these we seek to expand the circle of peace among Arabs and Israelis, we take inspiration from what Israel and Egypt achieved three decades ago, knowing that the destination is worthy of the struggle.

But that’s not how it happened.  Not at all.